How did one guy change a world's belief system?
This site contains a log describing a week spent in the Galapagos during which we kept stumbling across Charles Darwin, the principal advocate of the theory of evolution. In putting the log together, it seemed appropriate to include references to where our group and the eminent biologist crossed paths, and that led to reading several of the many biographies about Darwin.
What struck me after doing so was the enormity of Darwin’s accomplishment. Professors Alexander Wendt and Raymond Duvall describe elite culture as "the structure of authoritative belief and practice that determines what 'reality' officially is." In Darwin's case, a single person developed a theory and then published it, overturning a prevailing belief system dictated by elite culture that was firmly embedded in the collective wisdom of the church, state, and scientific establishment. Ernest Mayr, a leading figure in 20th century evolutionary biology, the "acceptance of these ideas required an ideological revolution. And no biologist has been responsible for more—and for
more drastic—modifications of the average person’s worldview than Charles Darwin."
In his excellent biography of Charles Darwin, David Quammen writes, “If the scientific community issued bank notes, … the face on the dollar bill would be Darwin’s.” Continuing that analogy, if George Washington is the father of his country, how did Darwin become the father of modern science?
Darwin is given credit for the theory of evolution by natural selection,
now the unifying theory of the life sciences. However, he was neither the first to conceive the concept nor expound it. Evolution’s rough outlines can be traced back to Aristotle, and several theorists were advancing various iterations in the latter decades of the 18th century and the early ones of the 19th. Yet Darwin is given priority as its proponent.
Darwin’s life and work has been subjected to intense scrutiny in hundreds of books, treatises and scientific papers, but there is one aspect that should be a case study for anyone seeking to propound a revolutionary idea. Setting aside whether you agree with Darwin's theory or not, it’s fascinating how he positioned himself to become its chief advocate.
David Hull, a leading 20th century professor of biology at Northwestern University said, “Seldom in the history of ideas has a scientific theory conflicted so openly with a metaphysical principle as did evolutionary theory with the doctrine of the immutability of the species.” The established belief system of Darwin's age, creationism, held that within the traditional Biblical timescale of the last 6,000 years or so, God created all living beings during a six-day period, and since that moment all species, including humans, have remained essentially unchanged. So how did Darwin articulate a countervailing theory in a way that was first heard, then accepted by a large audience? How did he avoid being ridiculed, vilified, or otherwise thrown on the ash heap of history? What lessons can be learned from his experience by anyone seeking a successful way to advance a revolutionary idea?
From a cursory review of the literature, the following are fourteen steps Darwin took to replace an established belief system with a new one.
Charles Darwin was a quiet individual who did little to distinguish himself growing up, spending most of his time at Cambridge riding
and shooting, not studying. His father, a wealthy and well-connected doctor, first tried to get him involved in medicine. When that didn't take, he pushed his son towards a life as an Anglican country parson. Charles, however, had an interest in botany and geology, and one of his professors found an escape for him as a naturalist on the Beagle, a British naval exploration ship preparing for an expedition to chart the coastline of South America.
The expedition's circumnavigation of the globe took nearly five years, resulting in Darwin spending considerable time exploring remote and exotic areas in South America and the Pacific Islands. Darwin was a vigorous, energetic young man over six feet tall, and his years beyond
the edges of civilization took him to places few others in British society had gone.
During the voyage, he assembled a large collection of scientific samples, wrote copious notes and, equally important, sent sharply observant letters home that got him recognized in scientific circles long before he returned. That meant when he stepped off the Beagle in London in 1836, he was an eligible bachelor from a wealthy family who had branded
himself a scientific adventurer. With wonderful stories to tell, Darwin was in demand in London's best social circles and invited to the fanciest parties with the brightest people of his time.
The voyage over, Darwin moved quickly to begin delivering papers and
publishing books about it. He began with a treatise on the geology of Chile that won the approval of Charles Lyell, the president of the Royal Geological Society and a rising star in the field. He published a personal journal based on his diary which was not only informative and entertaining, it sold well. The book made him a famous author, even drawing a glowing letter of praise from one of the leading explorers of the era, Alexander von Humboldt, thus forging Darwin “a fair place among scientific men” as he described it.
From there he published a book, The Geology of the Voyage of the Beagle, which ran to three volumes and was given wide acclaim by leading geologists of his day. Next, he talked his way into becoming the editor of The Zoology of the H.M.S. Beagle, a lavishly illustrated five-part encyclopedia financed by the Royal government that incorporated the writing of leading experts of his day analyzing the specimens Darwin had collected. By 1846 he had also written two dozen scientific papers and published a book on coral reefs.
Ten years after his return, Darwin turned to the last container of
specimens from the Beagle, one holding a dozen barnacles. The consensus of the experts at that time was that the field of barnacle taxonomy was in disarray and Darwin was just the person to fix it. His work on the subject not only resulted in him becoming the definitive expert in the field, it gave him an opportunity to lay out his theories in a way that could be wrapped in detailed science. That project became monumental and lasted eight years. However, all this writing which took nearly twenty years was necessary to support the third step.
When the criticism did come, one author points out that “some critics turned against Darwin’s teachings for religious reasons, but they were a minority; most of his opponents…argued on a completely scientific basis.”
Early on, therefore, Darwin removed the Church, limiting the attack to the scientific community where he had supporters and a close circle of friends. And many of the arguments utilized by members of the scientific community addressed the methods Darwin used to reach his conclusions. David Hull, for example, wrote in The Spectator in 1860 that “Darwin's theory is not inductive,—not based on a series of
acknowledged facts pointing to a general conclusion,—not a proposition evolved out of the facts, logically, and of course including them. To use an old figure, I look on the theory as a vast pyramid resting on its apex, and that apex a mathematical point." If someone is huffing and puffing about the process by which a proposition is reached, not focusing on its merits, the critic is having difficulty fielding a good argument.
Within days after his return, Darwin persuaded several leading scientists of the day to take charge of analyzing pieces of his collection. Richard Owen, an outstanding anatomist at the Royal College of Surgeons, agreed to describe the fossil mammals and soon told his peers that Darwin was a worthy collector. George Waterhouse, a museum curator,
took on the living mammal species and the insects. John Gould, a respected ornithologist, focused on the birds. Thomas Bell, a zoology professor, was placed in charge of the reptiles. The fish went to Leonard Jenyns and the plants to John Stevens Henslow, the professor who had secured his passage on the Beagle.
Virtually all these scientists believed in the prevailing doctrine of
the day, the immutability of the species, but Darwin forced them to deal with evidence of anomalies. More importantly, by accepting this work and the responsibilities it entailed, each was assimilated into Darwin’s world and became part of his network, and they felt pressure to contribute to the scientific publications he was editing.
In this process, for example, Gould identified thirteen new species of finches, all unknown to science, and delivered a preliminary report at a Zoological Society meeting that garnered attention. He also announced that Darwin had discovered a new species of flightless bird in southern Patagonia, a smallish rhea which in a nice touch Gould named Rhea darwinii.
Propelled by this notoriety and his publications, Darwin
was elected to a variety of scientific and social societies, including the
Athenaeum Club whose members included Charles Dickens. He was named a Fellow of the Royal Society, Britain’s foremost scientific club, and he accepted the position of secretary of the Geological Society and later was promoted to vice president. For his work on barnacles, the Royal Society awarded him their Royal Medal for Natural Science. As Quammen describes it, he was “well embedded within the seamless matrix of government, Church, and gentlemanly science."
Money influences behavior, and Darwin’s great fortune was that he had one. He worked hard and continuously throughout his life, but he never had to do so for a living. His father was both wealthy and generous, and
Darwin married a cousin who was part of the Wedgewood family. From each family, the couple received a stipend that in today’s dollars would be equivalent to nearly $2 million a year. His livelihood, therefore, was never dependent on the approval of an academic review board nor activities pleasing an employer, clients or customers.
Darwin was a workaholic, constantly reading, writing, studying, drafting, and otherwise pursuing his agenda most every day of the week.
Once he had established himself as a well-respected member of the scientific and geographic community, he fled London for a home with a quiet office in the countryside in a village called Downe, two hours from London by horse and carriage. There, he was close enough for special occasions but shielded from social activities which interrupted his work and were hard on his constitution. All Darwin wanted to do was pursue his interests and avoid visitors and distractions. Therefore, writes Quammen, his move to Downe meant he “settled into village life as though it were the witness protection program.”
By this point Darwin was frequently ill and often bedridden. He may have picked up something in the South American jungle, but whatever it was meant lively discussions made him sick, and he spent a significant part of his adult life literally puking. There is much speculation as to why, but no one appears to have diagnosed his issues. Perhaps the theories he was developing, so far from the mainstream of
conventional thinking, were tearing him apart. And that tension was present in his home. Although happily married, his wife Emma was
deeply religious and called his apostasy “a painful void between us.”
Despite his cloistered existence, he was intently focused on advancing his agenda. In an age where people wrote letters, his were frequent and eloquent, and he used them to pepper anyone who might be useful in adding to his store of knowledge or furthering his research. In his letters requesting information, specimens, and assistance, he “was unctuous and apologetic, but demanding.”
Darwin was adept at incorporating themes in his work that had been
articulated by well-respected scientists of his day. For example, John Herschel, a leading figure of the period, had written about “that mystery of mysteries, the replacement of extinct species by others,” evidenced by fossil records explained with difficulty using theology. In his first
paragraph of Origin of Species, Darwin took that notion one step further, saying he hoped to “throw some light on…that mystery of mysteries, as
it has been called by one of our greatest philosophers,” and then discussed how he was “astonished” by the abundance of unique species inhabiting the small Galapagos archipelago. When Origin was published, Herschel was not amused.
Perhaps his strongest authorities came from economic theory,
particularly Thomas Malthus’ Essay on the Principle of Population. In it, the author argues that each specie has a tendency to proliferate beyond its available resources and that runaway population growth is prevented by checks, the most significant one being starvation. The consequence of all this competition “must be to sort out proper structure &
adapt it to change.” Malthus became the foundation for his theory of natural selection.
During the voyage and continuing with the publication of Origin of the Species, Darwin assiduously cultivated friends who would support him along the way.
One was the geologist Charles Lyell whose books Darwin had
read during the voyage. Lyell, twelve years older than Darwin, befriended him and became a lifelong mentor.
Darwin also built a relationship with a bright young botanist,
Joseph Dalton Hooker, who had returned from serving as a naturalist aboard a British ship on an expedition to Antarctica. During their lives, Hooker and Darwin exchanged 1400 letters which account for 10 percent of Darwin’s surviving correspondence. The plant specimens had never been properly analyzed, and Hooker agreed to take on that task. He found the island by island variation of the Galapagos plants “a most strange fact” which “quite overturns all our preconceived notions of species radiating from a center.”
Asa Gray was a botany professor at Harvard, and their correspondence became part of papers submitted to the Linnean Society. Gray would become his strongest supporter in America, assembling a book of his essays on evolution and theism in 1876, entitled Darwiniana.
Thomas Henry Huxley, one of the leading anatomists of the day, became Darwin’s bulldog, his most passionate defender. He coined the phrase Darwinism.
When Darwin began his barnacle project, he was encouraged by John Edward Gray, keeper of the zoological collections at the British Museum. Gray even persuaded the Museum’s trustees to let Darwin borrow all the specimens and snip some into bits.
However, a few months after Darwin started his research, Gray presented a couple of short papers on barnacles to the Zoological Society. Soon thereafter, Darwin heard through the grapevine that Gray intended to preempt his final publication with early descriptions of the most interesting species. Darwin confronted Gray in person, following up with a huffy, legalistic letter. Gray backed off, but gossip of the spat had to have gotten around town. Don't mess with Charles.
What the barnacle tiff illustrates is the extent to which Darwin wanted priority. He enjoyed the research and inquiry, but he wanted to be recognized as the ultimate authority in his chosen field. When it came
to the concept of evolution, however, that position could be hazardous to one's reputation. There were popular books being published and discussion of it in scientific circles, but people were being trashed
for claiming the theory had merit.
By the mid-1850’s, Darwin had begun delicately raising his theory of evolution with his inner circle. Their reaction was mixed, but they were united in encouraging him to publish his theory before someone else did. Darwin was hesitant, however. He had seen what had become of others who had stepped forward with similar ideas.
Then the shoe dropped.
One morning in 1858, twenty-two years after returning from his voyage
and working on the project ever since, Darwin received a package in the mail from Alfred Russel Wallace, someone he had been corresponding with as he pestered people for specimens. Wallace was in the business of collecting specimens in exotic places for upper crust Brits, and Darwin was looking for certain types of ducks from the other side of the globe. Wallace had no family wealth, connections, university education, nor social connections, but he had spent considerable time in the Amazon and Malaysia. During those travels, he came up with the same concept of natural selection as Darwin had 20 years earlier. In the Amazon and Rio Negro areas of South America, for example, he noticed that species of monkeys on one side of each big stem of a river differed from those on the other.
Reading Wallace's twenty-page paper, Darwin confided to his entourage that it was “the closest thing to a precis of my own theory,” continuing “I never saw a more striking coincidence.” He was devastated and saw his life's work going up in smoke.
Compounding his misery, Wallace said, oh, and by the way, the paper isn't meant for you, Darwin. Please send it to Lyell, I think he would find it of interest. Don't have his address. Wallace had no idea that Darwin was exploring the same concept.
It is in such times that we need friends. One of Darwin’s children was dying, and both Lyell and Hooker told him they would deal with the situation, asking whether he had ever written up his theory. Fortunately, Darwin had. The two quickly arranged for both Wallace’s paper and
Darwin’s to be read at the next meeting of the Linnean Society where Lyell, Hooker and Darwin were members. Neither of the authors was in attendance, but a few weeks after the presentation the proceedings were published causing a stir. Darwin's friends told him he now had no
choice but to do an abstract for publication and get it done quickly.
A year later, that abstract became the 500+ page
book, On the Origin of Species. Wholesalers immediately purchased the first printing such that it sold out the first day. His publisher told him to start writing the second edition.
As for Wallace, he was in Indonesia when he received a letter from Hooker describing what had happened with his paper, along with a weaselly cover note from Darwin saying he really hadn't had anything to do with the release of either paper. After thinking about it, Wallace decided that he was happy with the outcome. Until that point he was a relative unknown who had tried without success to publish papers on the subject. Now, he was part of the Linnean Society crowd and junior partner to the unimpeachable Charles Darwin. As Quammen writes, Wallace “accepted his place, second place, in the pantheon of British evolutionary theorists.”
Just before publication, the Athenaeum, a prominent literary magazine, took a shot at Origin, saying “If a monkey has become man—what may not a man become?” Darwin never said that monkeys had changed into men, but the controversy had begun, ensuring Darwin and his work would be on everyone’s minds.
One reason for the success of Origin is that it is not a turgid scientific tome. The first edition was written in the everyday language of its time and intended for a broad audience. The public found it both instructive and entertaining. Written in haste, it persuades by bringing the reader along on Darwin's personal journey which meant it wasn’t encumbered by footnotes and overly technical language. However, it was sufficiently dry so that it couldn’t be dismissed as something a journalist would write.
In Origin of the Species, Darwin does not come across as an insufferable egomaniac inviting further attack on that basis alone, rather as the reluctant author seeking sympathy from the reader. He was fully conscious of the religious, scientific and emotional reactions he would stir, and he chose an approach of humble conviction addressing a skeptical public. He pointed out, for example, the length of time he had taken to arrive at his conclusions, his reluctance to publish, that the work was only an “Abstract” which “must necessarily be imperfect.“ He said that not all the facts and arguments had been marshaled, and that
there were holes in his theories visible to even him.
Origin is written in the first person by someone tiptoeing up to the revolutionary theories he confesses having developed. Darwin is saying, I know that you may find much of what I say objectionable, but let me explain how I came to see what I see. His approach is jujitsu. As one one observer writes, "Darwin had put forth his theory not as a proven fact, but as a probable hypothesis. He had inferred speciation hypothetically from evidence,not demonstrated it beyond all doubt." He said politely, take your best shot to prove me wrong.
Despite the initial hostile reaction to Origin of the Species, Darwin had to be taken seriously by both the scientific community and the public because of the foundation he had laid. As a result, his concept became generally accepted within a few years after the publication of Origin. It
helped that the ground had already been broken by other theorists advocating similar ideas in the years leading up to its publication. Geologists in the early nineteenth century, for example, had
established that Earth was much older than 6,000 years.
Discomfort with the idea of natural selection, however, led to a slump in Darwin’s reputation during the 1880s and 1890s. While there was acceptance of the concept of evolution, there was little agreement that natural selection was the causal mechanism. It wasn’t until 1899, seventeen years after his death, when the discovery of a paper
written by Gregor Mendel in 1865 that things perked up. Mendel’s studies of peas in his monastery in Austria outlined a concept of heredity and pointed toward the gene, providing answers to the question of the source of the variation of the species. Still, it would take a full seventy years before the scientific community developed a complete understanding of and proof set for Darwin’s theories, enabling him finally to become the face on the scientific community’s dollar bill.
When Darwin died, he wasn’t buried quietly in the village churchyard at Downe. His body was taken to Westminster Abbey and buried alongside Elizabeth 1, Newton and Milton following a funeral attended by thousands.
His triumph wasn’t complete, however, because Queen Victoria never conferred knighthood. Bishop Samuel Wilberforce had stepped
forward to block it because Darwin’s theory contradicted the beliefs of the Church of England. Benjamin Disraeli described the Bishop’s manner as “unctuous, oleaginous, saponaceous,” three characteristics sufficient apparently to to carry the day.
Still, if you wake up one morning with a new perspective which, if accepted, would revolutionize world thinking and you are searching for guidance on how to persuade millions to change their belief system, Darwin’s example is a good place to start.